Hanging with Prince: Seven Tips for Musical Enlightenment

Of all the interviews I’ve done in my 20-plus years on the Guitar Player staff, by far the most intriguing and challenging were the two that I did with Prince.
By Art Thompson ,

PHOTO: Neil Lupin | Getty Images

Of all the interviews I’ve done in my 20-plus years on the Guitar Player staff, by far the most intriguing and challenging were the two that I did with Prince. The first was in November 2000, as Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic was nearing its release date. Being invited to talk with Prince—who was still calling himself “the Artist” at the time—was an exciting opportunity to say the least, and to make the most of it we opted to do separate stories for GP and Keyboard magazine. That was the easy part. Things got a little more more problematic as we tried to figure out how to accommodate Prince’s request that no recording devices be used during the interviews. Since neither my-self nor Keyboard’s associate editor at the time, Ernie Ride-out, had any shorthand skills, we came up with the idea of hiring a court stenographer to sit with us and type everything that was said. Prince seemed to be cool with the concept, so all was set as we headed off to Minneapolis.

On Day 2 we checked in at Paisley Park and waited around outside until Prince rolled up in his purple Plymouth Prowler. I lost a coin toss as to who got to take a ride through his “neighborhood” in the two-seat coupe, but getting to wander around the inner sanctum of Paisley Park on my own made up for it. I’ve also got to say that all the stories I’d heard about how mercurial this pop superstar was faded right away, because Prince was totally cool and seemed genuinely appreciative that we were going to put him on two magazine covers. I was glad, however, that I wasn’t first up to interview him, because he promptly sent the stenographer packing as Ernie kicked off his interview. It probably seemed too much like giving a court deposition with the stenographer clicking away, but we were suddenly left to pad and pen for jotting things down. I kinda freaked out about that, although I came to understand later that Prince really wasn’t all that interested in being documented verbatim. Perhaps to him, speaking to a journalist was like showing a musician a part—he expected you to put your spin on it.

Prince played tracks from the new record for me as we sat in one of the control rooms. He was easy to talk to, he showed me guitars, he tinkered with the Linn Drum he’d used for 1999, and he let his guitar tech, Takumi, detail his live rig (which can be seen in the January 2000 issue). When the interview was over we went to a sort of replica diner inside Paisley Park where, as if on cue, bassist Larry Graham and his wife suddenly appeared, both dressed in their Sunday finest after a day of going door-to-door spreading the gospel of Jehovah. Fortunately, Larry was more interested in talking to us about about Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station, and his NPG gig.

My second interview with Prince took place at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2004. This was during the Musicology tour, and one of the interesting things about it was that everyone in the audience got a free copy of the CD. Something like 50,000 copies were being handed out each week just to promote the new album. When I spotted Prince that afternoon he was whizzing around in a golf cart with a wireless mic, apparently evaluating the acoustics of the room after the sound check. When we got together a bit later backstage in this decked out tent they’d set up for him, he offered me some tea and we rapped for a half hour before the show started. Again, I had to rely on scribbled notes and whatever I could manage to keep in my head. Prince was characteristically circumspect about his guitar playing or—God forbid—any gear details, but Takumi had already given me a tour of the stage and all the amps, cabs, and effects housed beneath it. As I left to go talk to his boss, he quipped, “Don’t tell Prince I showed you this stuff.”

Gleaned from both interviews, here are some of the things Prince had to say:

ON ARTISTIC FREEDOM
“The benefit of having your artistic freedom is that there won’t be anyone forcing you to do a remix or anything else you don’t want to do. I don’t believe in remixing songs that are in the key of life. When the record people get in there and say, ‘Why don’t you do it like this?’ Well, that’s their prerogative if they own the contract. But bands break-up over contracts—just talk to the Eagles about that. I’ve asked record execs why they aren’t under contract with each other, and all I get is, ‘That’s a very funny idea, Prince.’”

ON GROOVE
“On some songs, I just like the way I play drums and keys better than anyone I know. My drummer, John Blackwell, can certainly do things I can’t do, but, if I bring him into the studio, there are things he’ll do differently than how I envisioned them. You know, I can’t even play ‘When Doves Cry’ the way I originally envisioned it. It’s like a painting—it is what it is. You know how [legendary director] Billy Wilder got such a seamless quality to his films? It was because he wrote and directed everything himself. It’s the same for me.”

ON EGO
“I’m competitive, and I’ve definitely let my ego control me. But I’ve discovered that when it comes to music, ego has to sit down.”

ON THE AUDIENCE
“I like the audience to be as sophisticated as my music is, and, sometimes, I’ve had more fun doing challenging things in after-show concerts than playing the hits at the main show.”

ON STYLE
“My guitar style was influenced by Sonny T. [one of the early members of New Power Generation], Freddie Stone [guitarist, Sly and the Family Stone, and Tony Maiden of Rufus.”

“I’m always trying to work in the bass notes when I’m playing funk rhythms. It’s the same way that Freddie Stone would always play the same parts as [bassist] Larry Graham, but just a tad higher.”

“A lot of cats don’t work on their rhythm enough, and if you don’t have rhythm, you might as well take up needlepoint or something. I can’t stress it enough. The next thing is pitch. That’s universal—you’re either in tune or you ain’t [laughs]. When you get these things down, then you can learn how to solo. Guitarists should listen to singers for solo ideas—especially women singers. Women haven’t had a chance to run the world yet, so you still hear the blues in their singing. Try to play one of the runs that Beyoncé or Ella Fitzgerald does and you will surely learn something.”

“The best players used to play rock and roll. The first time you heard Boston, it was this huge, amazing sound with all that guitar doubling. Same with Brian May—nobody sounded like him. I still think of Return to Forever as a rock band. Those guys could really play, but there ain’t nobody doing that in rock these days.”

“Kids don’t learn to play the right way anymore. When the Jackson Five came up, they had to go through Smokey Robinson and the Funk Brothers, and that’s how they got it down.”

ON RECORDING
“I always know what the whole thing is going to sound like. It’s all in here [taps his head], but it’s here, too [points at the console].”

“I use punch-ins and spot-erasing as a compositional style; that’s how I build and edit arrangements and performances. I’m quick enough with the Record button that I can shave a letter off a word. But that’s because I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”

“I generally build my tracks one at a time, but sometimes I use the band to get the rhythm down. In a way, it’s more fun to get it out of people. You know, an idea is still yours even if you give it to someone.”

“A lot of times, I’ll sample a guitar that I’ve recorded, and then overdub the same part with a keyboard. The attack of the keyboard gives guitar lines more impact and punch.”

A HIGHER CALLING
“When I changed my name back to Prince, I went into intense study of the bible with my friend Larry Graham. It gave me a sense of the world that I didn’t have before. For a long time, I was into living life to its fullest in every way possible—including spending as much time in the studio as I could. And while I still spend so much time in the studio that people say I should be in a 12-step program, at least now I know where I’m headed. Any musician who learns everything about their instrument will only know who they are if they spend the time to know God. That’s why I don’t like to talk about gear. People will go out and buy that stuff thinking it’s going to make them sound like me, and that’s not where it’s at. Go get your own stuff and come up with your own sounds. If you need a path to follow, a good place to start is by listening to Ike Turner—he was as tight as they come—or James Brown, who is all about rhythm. Put any colors you’ve learned from Joni Mitchell on top of that, and then you’ve got something!”

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